Captive Review

Captive ReviewRating:

6 out of 10

Captive Cast:

David Oyelowo as Brian Nichols

Kate Mara as Ashley Smith

Michael K. Williams as Detective John Chestnut

Leonor Varela as Detective Carmen Sanchez

Jessica Oyelowo as Meredith MacKenzie

Mimi Rogers as Kim Rogers


Spirituality is a tough thing to capture, an ephemeral notion which means different things to different people and as a result can produce wildly divergent, even schizophrenic offerings when put down on paper or film. It can be so heavy-handed as to be counterproductive to the message it is trying to convey, or so light that ultimate meaning is lost in an array of competing stimuli.

And yet that is exactly the challenge director-producer Jerry Jameson and actor-producer David Oyelowo (Selma) have set for themselves in Captive. Ignoring easy proselytizing or sentiment, the filmmakers have instead produced an examination of the fundamental hope of Christianity that grace can strike at any moment regardless of an individual’s actions. And extreme actions at that as the film focuses its theme through the lens of the true life story of Brian Nichols (Oyelowo), an accused rapist who escaped courthouse jail ahead of his trial and leading police on a nearly 24-hour manhunt.

Setting itself apart from other films of its kind, Captive refuses to take the easy way out at any point, eschewing sermonizing or proxy characters standing in for broad concepts. Instead it is built around solidly realized characters with complex problems. Nichols himself is an educated and intelligent man who claims to be innocent of the charges against him, but who also has few qualms about killing four people during his escape or kidnapping recovering drug addict Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) and forcing her to hide him.

The filmmakers understand the need to engage all the facets – good and bad – of their characters rather than simply dealing in straw men, and they’re supported by the completely engaged performers. Though it starts with a slam bang escape, much of Captive’s focus is on the seven hours Nichols held Smith hostage, a choice which hones the narrative to something more like a one-act play than the police procedural it starts as. It also puts the film’s fate almost entirely in Oyelowo and Mara’s hands, a responsibility they are both up for. Sequences of Ashley making Brian breakfast and drawing out his thoughts on his incarceration play with has much force as his initial capture and restraint of her as each begins to reconsider how they really feel about actions in their past.

That is at least in part to the other major decision the filmmakers make in not casting their eye beyond the events of the manhunt. Brian’s past remains shrouded in ambiguity (he claims he was framed for rape, his state psychologist claims he is emotionally disturbed) as does Ashley’s (particularly whether she actually believes her addiction is a problem or not) and the film never takes a stance on either, letting judgment to be made based only on their ultimate choices during the ordeal.

Jameson’s instincts from decades of television directing keep much of this material engrossing as Brian and Ashley build a rapport, but the need to occasionally revert to more standard pot boiler elements ends up being counterproductive. While the escape early on ratchets up tension, as the story moves closer to the characters and their spiritual awakenings, those sorts of elements become less useful.

Occasional visits to the outside world to investigate the state of the manhunt actually slow the narrative pace of the film down, in part because Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”) and Leonor Varela as the detectives leading the hunt get the most conventional dialogue. It’s almost as tricky a balance as the one between preachiness and enlightenment, but though Captive wobbles a lot trying to maintain both, it never quite falls.

It never quite soars, either; the quest for grace at its core is ultimately (perhaps inevitably) elusive. By keeping away from heavy-handed sermonizing, Captive avoids the landmine of empty preachiness, but it also keeps the spiritual elements from landing solidly.

The film and its makers are trying to approach faith in life from an experiential mode, grounded in the banality of the everyday world, which is a good choice. But the spiritual itself is something which can only be circumscribed by the banal, never directly approached. It needs a certain amount of poetry, of magical realism, to convey the reality of the inner life without words. The push towards realism, to focusing on the physical world of the people and nothing more flies in the face of that need.

Instead what we get is Rick Warren as, with police closing in and all avenues of escape falling away, Brian and Ashley comfort themselves and escape from the pressures of their situations by reading passages from “A Purpose Driven Life.”

It’s the emotional and thematic pinnacle of the film and doesn’t quite work, though not due to any single element. Mara and Oyelowo are excellent – Oyelowo in particular disappears into Brian – and the Warren book functions like any good Chekhovian gun should, disappearing for a long time as opposed to being permanently pinned to the characters. When it does make its necessary return it is given importance not in and of itself but as an icon of something larger. And rather than force long quotations from it, Ashley’s reading and Brian’s conflict are played out in a long montage which cares less about the exact words and more about the feeling they convey.

As committed as the actors are to the moment, the attempt to describe something internal through visuals is so underplayed it ultimately flies away ungrasped, the emotion involved understood but not shared. Strong performances and a heart in the right place make Captive difficult to easily dismiss but ultimately the film plays its game to safe to be memorable.


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